In 2014, Obiageli Ezekwesili captured the world’s attention with #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign to rescue 276 schoolgirls who had been kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria, by the militant group Boko Haram. In announcing a presidential bid on Oct. 7, the former World Bank official now hopes to upend establishment politics in Africa’s most populous country.
AGAINST THE MACHINE
Ezekwesili’s work for the Chibok girls, half of whom are still missing, has earned her popularity and a reputation as a “dogged” advocate, says Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House. Short-listed for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her anticorruption activism, she also appeals to those concerned about graft scandals in the main parties. Between them, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have governed Nigeria since it returned to civilian rule in 1999. Entering the race just months before the vote, Ezekwesili faces an uphill struggle against their machinery.
IT’S THE ECONOMY
Ezekwesili wants to lower reliance on oil and, in a country where 60% of the population is under 30, focus on schools instead. “Under my watch, education will be the new oil,” she says. It’s a big promise: in 2016, under incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, a fuel-price crash led Nigeria to its first recession in 25 years. Growth is slow, unemployment is at 18.8%–and PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar, a former Vice President and businessman, is emphasizing his job-creation chops.
Grand plans for Nigeria’s economy, though, must compete for attention with urgent security concerns. Clashes between ethnic groups have killed at least 1,300 in 2018 so far and are likely to continue as climate change drives up competition for farmland. Boko Haram retains a presence in the northeast and in February kidnapped another 110 schoolgirls. Whether voters prefer Ezekwesili’s tenacity, or Buhari and Abubadu’s experience, the race may come down to who they think can keep Nigeria safe.
This appears in the October 22, 2018 issue of TIME.